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Mateo Mornar: from camp monitor to internationally recognised sculptor

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Mateo Mornar dreams up and creates his sculptures in Monaco © Mateo Mornar

After being a sculptor, “My little Croat” as Prince Rainier III affectionately called him, now imagines monumental projects where houses, restaurants, shops, theatres and museums will stand side by side.

He was never destined to be a sculptor and yet, Mateo Mornar has literally carved out a special place for himself among contemporary sculptors. His atypical background, including having been in exile and a long career before taking up sculpture, has shaped a committed artist, who is both humble and enthusiastic.

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Born in 1946 in the former Yugoslavia in Split (now Croatia), his family lost everything when the communist regime took over. The family hotel was no longer and the family decided to move to a safer, more stable place: Paris.

In France, his father worked at a factory and his mother, who was a doctor in Croatia, worked as a midwife. According to Mateo Mornar, it was easy to integrate, especially when his father’s factory organised winter holiday camps in Normandy. He learned French there and went back several times until the age of 16, when he was offered the chance to become a camp monitor. Mateo accepted and worked his way up for 10 years, eventually becoming the director of a holiday camp.

The road to art

At the age of 24, one of his parents’ friends enrolled him at the Ecole supérieure d’art moderne, having detected a certain attraction for art. While Mateo Mornar did not create art himself, he was certainly interested in the art workshops at the summer camps.

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When he left the school, Mateo turned to interior design and graphics. His work led him to decorate the Palais des expositions de Nice (Nice exhibition centre) in a retro style for a car show in the 70s. This was his first time on the Côte d’Azur and it was a revelation for the sculptor: “When I saw the city of Nice and its surroundings, I said to myself: I have to stay here.”

He moved to Villefranche and was soon working on creating posters and covers for the Société des Bains de Mer, Monaco Tourist Office and the Gazette de Monaco.

Starting out as a sculptor

The arrival of the computer revolutionised his trade. So much so that Mateo also decided to revolutionise his life, throwing himself into sculpture in the mid-1990s. Thanks to the many scale models he had made for architects, shops or fairs, the sculptor already had a good deal of experience of forms in space.

“Instead of drawing in perspective, I would make a volume model. I would include as many things as possible, little lights, little flowers… I would often get the project because my presentation was so original,” says Mateo Mornar.

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One thing led to another, with Mateo blending into the Monegasque landscape until he had the idea of writing the History of the Princes of Monaco with Gaétan Luci, the Prince’s Palace photographer. The idea caught on and the Palace gave it the green light.

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Prince Albert II and Mateo Mornar in front of the Polar Bear © Mateo Mornar

“Thanks to this book, I got the chance to get to know Prince Rainier and when I told him that I was going to do sculpture full-time, he said: ‘Mateo, I’ll follow you, I’ll come to your exhibitions’,”  explains Mateo Mornar. A wonderful spotlight on a budding career.

While Mateo had known Prince Albert II since he was a child, when Prince Rainier III passed away the Sovereign declared: “My father supported you, I will also support you in what you do.”

The move to Monaco

Despite his close ties with the Principality and Monaco’s Princes, Mateo Mornar continued to create in France. However, in 2012, the sculptor and his son were victims of a violent robbery in his shop in rue Smollett in Nice.

After the attack, Prince Albert II suggested the sculptor settle in the Principality for more peace of mind. And so it was that Mateo Mornar took up residence on the Quai Antoine Ier, in a 250m² workshop.

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Récréation © Matéo Mornar

“We always take inspiration from someone”

Well-known for his “slightly chubby” sculptures of the female form, the sculptor was inspired by Antonuccio Volti, who encouraged him to fully commit to sculpture.

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It annoyed the “little Croat” when his sculptures were compared to Fernando Botero’s paintings, but it was a friendly rivalry that existed between the two artists. At 6 Quai Albert I, a host of artists shared the premises lent by the Principality. Mateo Mornar, Fernando Botero and Michel Aubéry were like the ‘dads’ there.

“Michel Aubéry and I were sad when Botero left two years ago. We are now the old couple living there. He was very secretive but always very polite,” Mornar says.

Eclectic sculptures

His style, initially mostly female sculptures representing motherhood and protection, evolved towards more political sculptures. Inspired by his insomnia and dreams, he creates sculptures of threatened species, such as polar bears and rhinos, to raise awareness about protecting biodiversity.

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The hymn to life, Mateo Mornar © Monaco Tribune/ Théo Briand

“I realised that animals around the world suffer a great deal. So, I made disappearing polar bears, poor rhinos that get their horns cut off. I’ve made a dozen large sculptures of these endangered animals.”

A prolific artist, you can often come across one of his works in  a garden, a square, a street on the Côte d’Azur. His sculptures adorn the landscapes of the Côte d’Azur, including Monaco but especially the Parc des Oliviers in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin where his largest sculptures are located, such as the gigantic 6-metre high Pegasus, Lion or Hippopotamus.

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Pegasus, bronze sculpture © Mateo Mornar
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© Matéo Mornar

Major monumental projects

Recently, the sculptor has embarked on new monumental projects. The goal: to change the look of buildings, which are alike the world over. Tired of this uniformity and the race to build ever higher, Mateo Mornar wants to see the emergence of emblematic buildings.

Hence for example his Horse of Peace, a remarkable building that is 278m high, or his 314m high elephant, symbolising peace, prosperity and longevity.

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Mateo Mornar’s big project, an elephant building © Mateo Mornar

Mateo Mornar is bursting with ideas. He has already thought of many other majestic creations bringing houses, theatres, museums, restaurants and shops together in one place.

To develop these immense projects, the sculptor has teamed up with the Deverini architectural firm to make these marvellous fantasies, which stand in stark contrast to traditional architectural designs, a reality.

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The Horse of Peace © Mateo Mornar

Transmission and the desire to help

Mateo Mornar is also keen to show off his trade. Often interacting with people, he sometimes works at the Fairmont, and naturally engages in conversation with the somewhat bewildered customers.

The sculptor also provides classes on Saturday afternoons with “about twenty people from 10 to 92 years old.”

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“My dream is to create a foundation in Monaco where there will be doctors, psychologists, art and music professionals, to help people of all ages who, at some point in their lives, don’t know what to do. The idea is to create a centre, free of charge of course, to help them find their way in life.”

It would appear he’s never really forgotten his first job. Mateo Mornar is still keen to share, introduce and transmit his passion for art with people of all ages, and especially to help them discover a goal in life.